Designer for Hire

Don’t say cheese

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The owners of Purple Nickel are breaking all the rules with their portrait photography studio. There’s only one requirement: you have to have lots of fun. By Gillian Drummond.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

When Casia Fletcher looks back at her family photographs, it’s the candid, unplanned shots that strike a chord: Casia, still a baby, sitting with her dad on his Honda motorcycle; Casia as a kid playing in a pile of leaves.

“It’s so real,” says the University of Arizona graduate of that photo with the leaves. She also smiles at the memory of a photo of her sister wearing a vintage dress on her dad’s property in Marana. “That photo could totally work right now,” says Casia.

The last one wasn’t candid or unplanned; Casia took it herself, as part of her teenage experimentation with photography. But it speaks volumes about Casia’s need to “not do something traditional, to do something different”.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

So it’s no wonder that Purple Nickel, the portrait photography studio Casia runs with her husband Eric, is out of the ordinary. First off, they don’t use the studio much. Their preference is to capture their clients – families, graduates, business people wanting a different-looking head shot –  in unexpected places. Backdrops might include concrete bypasses, brick walls and random sidewalks. The desert makes an appearance sometimes, but cliches like cowboy hats among the saguaros are out. Instead, it might be a big-sky shot with a kid, tiny, running towards the edge of the frame.

Cora Joy. Photo by Purple Nickel.

Cora Joy. Photo by Purple Nickel.

Secondly, the shots are unexpected. Babies scream. Kids scrunch up their faces. Sometimes you only see the back of the children’s heads. The top half of the parents’ bodies might be cut off completely, to showcase the toddler at their feet. There may be just the limb of a child as his or her leap into the air is caught on camera.

A big difference with Purple Nickel is that their subjects are allowed – and encouraged – to be themselves, to get a little crazy, and to laugh. To Casia and Eric, worlds, and families, are imperfect, casual and fun. And so to portray a family sitting in a row with forced smiles would be disingenuous.

“It’s a reaction to the traditional portrait studio,” says Eric. If anything, Purple Nickel is the anti-portrait studio, focusing instead on those candid shots that are taken by family members, but that become their own family treasures. “The candid stuff was left for mom and dad to take, and that’s the stuff everyone wants. The problem with all of these shots is mom and dad are never in them. Now you get the opportunity to be in them,” he says.

They meet with the families or individuals first, find out what they love, discuss appropriate outfits, and get to know the kids. Then, at the shoot, both Casia and Eric take pictures. Their styles are similar enough yet different enough – Casia gets the good close-ups, Eric likes wider shots and ones where buildings feature prominently – to provide a rounded package for their clients.

“We both have our distinct styles but aesthetically they’re the same,” says Eric. “I like wider, bigger shots, Casia is much better with closer, tighter shots.” Adds Casia: “So the clients get variation.”

Photo by Purple Nickel.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

When they start shooting the photographs, especially of families, they create their own rhythm. Years of being together, and several years now of taking photographs together, has created a silent artistic shorthand between them, and respect for how each other is handling the shoot and the clients. Casia explains: “We know when to step back. If Eric is totally bonding with the kids, then I [step back]. Sometimes I have to say ‘Am I hogging?’ or ‘Do you want to step in?'”

Casia + Eric of Purple Nickel. Photo by Chelsea Blue

Casia and Eric of Purple Nickel. Photo by Chelsea Blue

The couple met in 2002, whilst at the University of Arizona, on a blind date that was arranged by a mutual friend. They moved in together a year later, and were married in 2006 in what Casia calls a “DIY wedding”, a casual, low-key affair held in the backyard of downtown Tucson’s historic Stillwell House. There was a friend officiating, another friend playing guitar, Tucson architect Page Repp DJ’ing, and a Polaroid photo guestbook. Pomp and ceremony are not this couple’s thing, which is one reason why they don’t shoot weddings for work. The exception was their friends Darci Hazelbaker and Dale Rush, owners of the architecture and design firm HA/RU, who twisted Casia and Eric’s arms into photographing their own wedding in rural New Mexico.

Purple Nickel operates out of a former tire warehouse in the Firestone building at 6th Street and 6th Avenue, a place that now houses retailers, galleries and artists. Together with the likes of the Conrad Wilde Gallery, OZMA Atelier, the Wee Gallery and, close by, the new Tap & Bottle, these businesses are helping create a burgeoning little arts district just off of Tucson’s counter-culture hub, 4th Avenue.

To boost their summer business, Purple Nickel recently turned part of their loft-style second-floor space into a studio to photograph kids. Clients of their new division, Purple Nickel Kids, get to play and clown around in a big expanse of white: a white platform and two white backdrop walls. Eric made the kids’ area with wood and MDF board. He glued the boards together, filled in the joints, and painted it with epoxy garage paint.

Casia admits that when they do in-studio shoots with kids, the children are taken aback when they’re told they can run around, jump, get silly. “They look at us like ‘Really? You don’t want me to sit still?'” says Casia.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

If props are used in the studio, they’re in keeping with Casia and Eric’s mid century, thrifty aesthetic. It’s likely to be a mid-mod-style steel chair, with perhaps a sock monkey or two.

Most portrait photographers use their studio to show off their wares, with framed photographs, catalogs, coupons and some standard props: giant numbers to signify a child’s birthday; baseball gear for the boys of the family; wrapped fake presents at Christmas. Casia and Eric’s second floor space is sparse, urban and risky – just like so many of their photos.

Eric, a former architectural designer who turned to photography full-time to help Casia run her business, fixed up the interior himself. They have kept two exterior red brick walls, and created some more walls with shipping crates (plus a friend’s garden gate) they found abandoned in an alley. A seating area features two mid-mod sofas picked up through Craigslist, a vintage table, and a smattering of other pieces bought through Craigslist and thrifting. A powder-coated white desk and set of white wall cabinets are from IKEA.

Inside Purple Nickel Studio

Inside Purple Nickel Studio, with the kids’ platform and shipping crate walls. Photo by Purple Nickel.

With both the platform and the shipping crate walls, Eric made sure they were floating, and barely attached to the original floor. “Everything was built with respect for the old building,” he says.

Eric, always a keen photographer, says he has made the transition from architectural designer to professional portrait photographer well. “I still love architecture and I still read about it. I follow people and I do drawings. I get my creative outlet that way.” As well as taking photographs, Eric is in charge of their design, website and blog.


Photo by Purple Nickel.

Casia got hooked on photography at Tucson High School (she still sings the praises of the school’s darkroom facilities). One teacher in particular stood out for her – a man named Jerry Halfmann. When the seniors graduated from the photography program, Mr. Hafmann would create a nickel-sized coin for each of them, using the silver from developing chemicals in the darkroom. “It had a little purple hue to it,” says Casia. Hence the name Purple Nickel.

While studying photography at the U of A, Casia worked part-time for The Picture People,  a chain of portrait photography studios. “It was stiff and rigid. You only had five poses. I knew if I had my own company it would be the complete opposite.”

Frustrated as she was, Casia found she was great with the kids – to the point where parents would request her for sessions. Even within The Picture People’s tight framework, Casia pushed the envelope. Some simple tweaking of angles and poses resulted in pictures that were out of the ordinary. Casia even persuaded her bosses to let her do an extra, sixth, pose. “With that one I got to do what I wanted.”

With Purple Nickel’s kids’ portraits, there is a 15- to 20-minute get-to-know-you session at the beginning, then another 45 minutes or more of shooting. Casia acts as a stylist too, asking the parents to bring one or two outfits and advising them on what might be a good look.

Willy & Gaby. Photo by Purple Nickel.

Willy & Gaby. Photo by Purple Nickel.

They both use Canon 5D Mark II cameras and a software program called Adobe Lightroom Presets, to make adjustments with shadows, contrast and color. Although they are full of praise for digital photography, they believe every professional photographer should learn to use film, and develop it in a dark room. “Then you understand the foundations. It’s like an architect should learn how to hand-draft and sketch,” says Casia.

Purple Nickel’s photos don’t come cheap; they reckon the average spend for a family is $2000. Kids’ portraits start at around $300. But they make no excuses for being possibly the most expensive portrait studio in Tucson.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

Photo by Purple Nickel.

Included in the fee is custom installation of the artwork, something Casia and Eric feel strongly about. “Sometimes it was six months or a year later and [the clients] still hadn’t hung them. Plus, I’m a control freak,” says Eric. “I wanted them to be hung correctly.”

These aren’t just photographs, says Eric. “This is art for your walls.”

* Find Purple Nickel Studio at 439 N. 6th Avenue. Tel: 520 477 8128.

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